Early in the morning, shortly after light and while most of you are still asleep, I ease my cross country bike, the Blue Rocket, from his berth at my home in San Joaquin. I keep him well maintained with air and oil and he’s always ready to go at a moments notice, just like me.
Slipping through the morning coolness, he and I enter the mists of the foothills of the green mountains west of Cuenca. We begin to straighten out the curves along via Soldados. His whirring pedals and I give a morning greeting to my many indigenous friends who live along the Río Yanuncay. They are a huge part of my Ecuadorian family and I love my interactions with them.
One person who I look forward to greeting is Darwin. Darwin’s family has been in the valley for around a hundred years. He has the unique gift of being able to tell many very old tales that have been passed down through generations. The stories are about life in the Andes, along its mountain rivers and pastures. These ancient and quite often mysterious stories describe how humans and animals interact harmoniously within their remote environments. I really enjoy this type of thing so I seek it out when possible. After hiking in the Andes with and without Darwin for four years, I have my own experiences and mysterious stories to tell.
Not long ago, something took place while I was alone and high in the Andes. It was a similar occurrence to one Darwin had experienced and related to me. He explained that his grandmother had described to him a unique relationship between some humans and a particular bird. My experience altered the weave of my life fabric; let me tell you what happened that windy and cold morning, more than two miles high in the mountains.
Hunters have a unique relationship with their prey that can never be fully fathomed except by hunters and prey. Others think they understand the dance of death between predator and prey. But until something is trying to kill you or you’re trying to kill something yourself, the experience cannot be completely realized. Hunting isn’t always done with a gun, sometimes it’s done with talons and razor-edged beaks … and sometimes it’s done with a camera.
He was stirring up a cloud of dust in the bare dirt as those yellow feet and raven colored wings beat a rhythmic tattoo on the hard ground. Pound, pound, pound … wham, wham, wham! The mature Curiquingue was mauling unidentified prey into submission. I remained crouched in the paramo high in the Cajas range of the Andes, somewhere above 12,000 feet. A chill wind blew and the light was iffy for photography. Light rain began to fall intermittently causing rivulets to run off my Arc’teryx’s hood and onto my pack where my camera rested under some gore-tex. I had been in that position for about forty minutes. With no warning, the Curiquingue erupted in upward flight and abandoned his prey, lighting amidst lichens and mosses another hundred yards further from me. I rose and stood behind a huge boulder that had been deposited there during earths last glaciation. I peered around its rough edges, my camouflaged face mask blending me in with the stone and grass.
The Curiquingue is a ground raptor who sparsely populates South America from the top of the continent to northern Peru. It frequents the high paramos and is a bird of mystery enjoying mythical significance with the indigenous peoples it makes its home near. Research demonstrates they were the Inca’s sacred messengers between earth and heaven. They were symbolic of spiritual purity, dignity and power. Although their origin in history was first acknowledged by the Inca, their presence is welcomed by the Cañar people as the bird’s appearance is seen as an omen of general good. That’s enough to get you familiar with the raptor. You can see it is quite special in many respects. And, a real challenge to photograph meaningfully in the wild, based on my current experience!
I eased up to the area he had occupied before his unheralded departure. There, lying on the dirt, bloody but still moving, was an earthworm. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was as big as a small snake, not quite two feet long and as big around as the base of my forefinger! I left it as I had found it, in the death throes of wiggledom, expecting the bird to return for his prey as time passed. I kept thinking about my friend, Darwin, who lives in Barabon along the Río Yanuncay. He told me that the birds sometimes befriended him with their intimate presence as he hiked high in the paramo on the upper edges of the Yanuncay Valley. This bird didn’t behave that way. But then, I’m a Gringo, I reminded myself as I saw him surveilling me from his rocky perch hundreds of feet away. My plan was to wait where I was in hopes he would return for that super-worm. The whole situation felt weird in a way, surreal, the huge worm kind of put me off…I still couldn’t believe my eyes.
I placed my camera under gore-tex again and eased back against a big grey chunk of basalt. A Cliff Bar was a good companion. I settled into my damp little hide and restarted the waiting game. I was a little sleepy and so I dozed but it was only for what seemed moments. When I looked back at the dirt, the worm was gone but the fight arena was unmistakable, replete with blood and worm bits. The Curiquingue wasn’t in sight, doubtless sated by worm and knocking off bird “zzz’s” somewhere. I stood and shouldered my pack but kept my camera deployed on a rapid strap system. I turned to begin a long hike out. Two steps later, I was hit by a massive adrenaline rush that about made my head pop off. The bird was staring at me nonchalantly from mere feet away as I stood in the knee-high grasses of the paramo. I knelt for a better angle and fired my camera with a staccato burst when he turned his head quizzically toward me.
It was so simple, I knew I had the shot. It wasn’t the first time the Curiquingue was my photographic quarry. I had tried many times before but was never satisfied with the details in the photographs. The bird was too far away. This time, he was in the bag so to say…well, his megabytes were anyway. I resumed the trek out and the bird followed me for over a mile. It was mind boggling how it acted. Sometimes it flew in front of me and landed only to move aside as I began to pass by. Many times, it was on the ground within a dozen feet of me. I spoke to the bird often, using a special language that Edie and I crafted over 45 years for private and personal communication. It spoke back with a “kak-kak-kak!”
The wind had begun to clip pretty good at about 20 mph and its power slowed me as I pressed head-on into it. The bird lifted and just suspended itself in the air currents staying right above my head and ten feet or so to my right. As I neared my truck, El Fantasma, the raptor rose high with a spiraling ascent and with a steep swoop and cut away, his wings saluted me with their aerial adieu. I had finally danced with the mysterious Curiquingua and received it’s recognition as another hunter of the high grasses of the paramo. My key hit the ignition and El Fantasma roared to life. As his tires sought purchase in the muddy rock-strewn road, I smiled to myself as I thought, “Wait till Darwin hears about this!”